Kodagu's lost legacy

Kodagu's lost legacy

The annual Hockey Festival, competed among different Kodava families, still holds a lot of interest but the quality of talent from the district has declined over the years.

The joy was unmistakable on the faces of SV Sunil and VR Raghunath. In a country where sporting recognition - other than cricket - is hard to come by, the duo from Kodagu was delighted to see their photos on the walls of the recently-unveiled Hall Of Fame at the Karnataka Olympic Association. Sunil, the current Indian hockey team striker, and Raghunath, former ace drag-flicker turned administrator, constantly kept snapping photos, delighted to be placed amongst decorated athletes who have brought laurels to Karnataka and India.

A little later, that joy turned into deep introspection when Indian Olympic Association president Narinder Batra spoke about a painful yet plain fact. The former Hockey India president didn’t mince words when he queried about the declining state of hockey in Kodagu as well as Karnataka.

“Coorg has given national players for so many years but nowadays, I don’t see any youngsters coming up," he lamented. "What is happening to hockey in Coorg where the sport once was so popular? They are tall, well-built and add value to the team. We have always had the best of the players coming from Karnataka and Coorg. So what’s bothering me is why now players aren’t coming from there.”

Batra’s concern was legitimate. In fact, that has been on the minds of many former hockey players from Kodagu, where the sport holds a special place in the hearts of all. From having produced several Olympians, World Cuppers and Asian Games medallists -- some of them considered among the finest the country has seen -- Kodagu now has barely any representation in the national team. Sunil, 31 years old and in the twilight of a decent career, is the only player from Kodagu in the senior team while there are just two in the junior probables. Youngsters SK Uthappa, Nikkin Thimmaiah and Nithin Thimmaiah, who were part of the senior core group a few years ago, have drifted away.

“The current situation is not good at all,” admitted Raghunath, vice-president of Hockey Karnataka. “The interest is still there, kids still like to play hockey in Coorg but the quality of talent coming through is not great. The coaching at the junior level is also not up to the mark. Evidence is our performance in the national championships. When we were playing, Karnataka constantly finished inside the top-3 in the nationals. A bulk of the players representing Karnataka were from Kodagu. Since we did well in the nationals, we caught the eyes of the selectors and were picked for the probables camp.

“But since 2015 our performance in the nationals — sub-junior, junior and senior — has not been up to the mark. Performances across categories have dropped considerably. We’ve not made it to the top-4 which means the selectors won’t see us. And if they don’t see, then the players don’t get picked. So firstly, performances in the nationals need to improve. Talent-wise, coaching-wise, Kodagu and Karnataka have been found wanting in the last 4-5 years. Serious course correction needs to be undertaken and we are doing that.”

One of the reasons behind the decline in talent is administrative chaos. Ever since Hockey Karnataka came into the picture a decade ago and replaced Karnataka Hockey Association (now known as Hockey Bengaluru) as the official body, things have been difficult for the players. While the administrators jostled for power and bragging rights, the players ended up losing direction in the melee. Tensions have calmed down considerably between Hockey Karnataka and Hockey Bengaluru, but the damage was done.

“Hockey Karnataka, Hockey Bengaluru, Hockey Coorg, it just became very confusing for the players,” felt Raghunath. “There was a big identity crisis. Players didn’t know who to represent. Talents got scattered. It became messy. Thankfully, that’s been sorted with just one team from state. Now, all of us are focussed on resurrecting the sport.”

AB Subbiah, secretary-general of Hockey Karnataka, felt it’s unfair to blame the administrators completely. “Yes, our issues could have led to the decline in standards of the sport in Coorg and Karnataka. But, we’ve buried the hatchet now. We are looking forward to working together. There are other reasons why talents are not coming through. Firstly, many kids who come to the hostels (DYES and SAI) end up focussing more on education than sports. The ones who excel in hockey are poached by institutional teams. Players obviously will take it up because of employment reason. Finally, the coaching levels at the grassroots level has gone down while hockey hotbeds of Punjab, Haryana and Odisha have upped the ante.

“While there’s still plenty of interest for hockey in Coorg with the Family Cup and other tournaments receiving a lot of entries, it’s not a viable career choice anymore. Parents are aware of that and force the kids to focus on academics. Earlier, the Hockey India League, just like IPL, presented them an opportunity. Now, HIL has hit a roadblock. Options are very limited now. Kids are much smarter now and are very career oriented. So, once they realise they are not extremely talented and can’t make it big in hockey, they just switch over to academics.” 

Raghunath acknowledged there’s no quick fix solution to the problem and the current dispensation is very serious about bringing the glory days back. “When I entered into administration, I figured we need to start from the grassroots level. In fact it was a no-brainer. So, VS Vinay, Vikramkanth and I are coaching the sub-junior and junior lads. We’ve even sought help from national junior coach BJ Kariappa. He has shared some valuable information with us. 

“We three are actively coaching the juniors and the kids are very receptive. We really need to get the kids back to the sport. Make them understand the sport can provide them a livelihood. We’ve just started and I’m confident things will improve over the next couple of years. We are keenly looking forward to the nationals next year."

The concerns are genuine and the efforts to address them seem earnest. Hopefully, the glory days of Kodagu will be restored soon.